Clever ‘Duplicity’ gets a second chance

[24 August 2009]

By Rene Rodriguez

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

How does a witty, fiendishly clever movie starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a pair of corporate spies playing head games on each other fail at the box office?

In the case of “Duplicity” (Universal Home Entertainment, $30 DVD, $40 Blu-ray), which stalled at a $40 million gross earlier this year, the culprit may have been a screenplay so packed with twists and turns it even outfoxed the audience. That shouldn’t be as big of a problem on home video, where your trusty rewind button allows you to go back and rewatch scenes of exposition that might leave you a little befuddled.

But the beauty of “Duplicity,” the second film from writer-director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), is the speed and dexterity with which the complicated story unfolds. The film only “seems” confusing if you’re not paying attention. Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplays for the three “Bourne” pictures, has an unerring sense for pace and plot construction. “Duplicity” is a big Bavarian pretzel of a movie, but one that has been beautifully contorted. In another era, the movie would have starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and no one would have complained.

The DVD and Blu-ray versions include only one extra, but it’s a great one. Gilroy and his brother John (who served as editor and co-producer) deliver an illuminating and informative commentary track recorded shortly before the film’s release, so they never talk about the disappointing public reception of the movie.

They do, however, go into great, fun detail about the project’s history. Gilroy originally wrote “Duplicity” seven years ago for Steven Soderbergh to direct, with the provision that Soderbergh would set the script free instead of sitting on it indefinitely if he decided not to make it. “As complicated as the script might seem, it wasn’t a complicated movie to write,” Gilroy says. “I was really just trying to show off for Steven.”

Once Soderbergh passed, various others circled the project, including Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, but no one fully committed. Halfway during the filming of his first movie, “Michael Clayton,” Gilroy decided he’d make “Duplicity” himself, and after “Clayton” star George Clooney introduced him to Owen during a break in shooting, Gilroy knew he had found his leading man.

Gilroy says part of what makes Owen such a good actor is that he’s utterly comfortable in his skin, so he’s willing to play scenes in which he’s emasculated by his female co-star in a battle of wits. “What’s so liberating about Clive is you don’t have to butch him up. You don’t have to man him up, so he’s comfortable enough to get knocked down a peg. He never came to me and said, ‘You think I could be a little cooler in this scene?’”

Gilroy also reveals that “Duplicity’s” opening scene, which is set in Dubai, was originally written at the request of Spielberg but that it was shot half-heartedly, because Gilroy never really intended to use it. But after test-screening the movie, Gilroy realized the scene was essential, because it made “little explosions of difference” throughout the rest of the film, a testament to Spielberg’s uncanny storytelling skills.

The first film from director Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) since her notorious 1993 debut “Boxing Helena,” which effectively derailed her career, the nasty little ditty “Surveillance” (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $27 DVD, $35 Blu-ray) stars Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as a pair of FBI agents investigating a string of horrific serial murders.

“Surveillance” is clumsily shot in spots (there’s a big car crash that is terribly choreographed and framed) and erratically acted in others. But the film also whips up an intriguingly odd, “Twin Peaks”-vibe from the opening moments set inside a small-town police station where the cops behave in exceedingly strange ways.

The weirdness continues throughout, including a gigantic plot twist at which Lynch hints a little too strongly, but still renders “Surveillance” something other than just another grimy wallow in serial-killer formula. The DVD and Blu-ray include a commentary track by Lynch, who curses like a sailor, and two of her cast members, who spend half the track telling Lynch what a wonderful director she is.

There are also a couple of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending that opts for a much more conventional resolution, and a 15-minute making-of featurette in which Ormond, who has never played any character remotely like the one she plays here, says that “Surveillance’s” angry, fiery tone is Lynch’s response to the way Hollywood kicked her to the curb after the debacle of her debut.

The premise sounds like a dark comedy, but “Sunshine Cleaning” (Anchor Bay, $30 DVD, $40 Blu-ray), about sisters (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who start a cleaning service for messy, blood-splattered crime scenes, is actually an affecting character drama, superbly acted by its leads, that explores the bond between sisters who refuse to surrender to the seemingly insurmountable odds life has put before them.

The disc includes an uncommonly informative commentary track by screenwriter Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson and a fascinating 11-minute featurette about two women who run a real-life sunshine cleaning service and discuss how the simple act of mopping up a mess can have such beneficial impact on the departed’s family members.

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